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A 'Warrior Woman' Confronts Mortality, In Verse

Jan 20, 2011 (Talk of the Nation)

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Maxine Hong Kingston's mother and grandmother were both lucky enough to live to 100. So 70-year-old Kingston, a professor and peace activist, hopes she has many years left — but she's starting to face the inevitabilities of her age. Her new memoir, I Love A Broad Margin To My Life, is a meditation on growing old.

Kingston's first published memoir, the iconic Woman Warrior, described her childhood as the daughter of Chinese immigrants in California. The 1976 book was a hybrid of genres, melding Kingston's memories with Chinese folklore — and it inspired a generation of writers to pen their own personal stories in creative prose.

In I Love A Broad Margin To My Life, Kingston continues to embrace creative storytelling, this time by writing her entire narrative in free verse. Ghosts from her past works are woven in and out of the story as she faces the challenges of aging.

Accepting the deaths of the people who have shaped her identity is one of those challenges, Kingston tells NPR's Neal Conan. "That is something that's not easy to take at this time of one's life.

"People who were your companions as you grew up and grew older, they are leaving now," Kingston says. "And when my friends and beloved people leave, I feel a draw to go with them ... I need to think of reasons for staying here."

One of the most compelling reasons to stay, Kingston says, is the responsibility that comes with becoming an "elder." Being an elder is very different than simply growing old, she says, and most people are unaware of the distinction.

Elders "have the wisdom and the ideas and the vision to make a good world," Kingston says. In her view, they commit to being leaders and sharing their wisdom with others.

That commitment, says Kingston, made Martin Luther King Jr. an elder, even at the young age of 39. "He had the vision of the beautiful community, and he worked ... to build that, and to show everybody how that's possible."

Kingston hopes to live to 100 like her mother and grandmother. But she riffs on Henry David Thoreau's desire to "live deliberately" (his quote from Walden inspired her book's title) when she says she intends to "die deliberately."

"I don't think that's alarming," she says. "I think that's very comforting ... That we can even learn at the very last moments of our lives."

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